Affect Phobia Explained

Fear of emotionsWhen we think of a phobia, it is often of an external fear such as snakes or heights. Yet what is more common are affect phobias, fears of our emotional experiences. Rather than being an external fear, an affect phobia is a fear/discomfort with something that happens internally. In fact, it is these internal fears that underlie many psychological problems.

Why do we fear our emotions? And how does this cause problems?

Many people may come to fear their feelings because of early learning in their families-of-origin. If parents have discomfort with their own expression of emotions they will communicate these fears to their children. For example, many parents struggle with their children’s natural expression of anger. Therefore, when a child becomes angry parents may react in dismissing or punishing ways. They might ignore their child or tell them to go to their room to “cool off.” Or the child’s anger may trigger the parent’s own problematic rage which may cause them to punish the child, either verbally or physically.

Children internalize their parents’ responses. If parents generally respond to their feelings in supportive and understanding ways they will develop a healthy relationship with their emotions (these individuals usually don’t need to come to therapy, or at least not for long). If parents respond in misattuned ways, by dismissing or punishing, then children will internalize the message that there is something “wrong” with their emotions. As adults, these individuals will struggle with their feelings and will benefit from therapy that helps them manage their emotions better.

Adults who have experienced inadequate parenting and struggle with affect phobias will generally experience anxiety-based or shame-based reactions to feelings, or both. These reactions are the automatic responses to any awareness of emotion, and often happen on an unconscious level. Here are a couple of examples:

Tom’s parents could not tolerate any expression of his anger as a child. They would send him to his room so he could “calm down.” As a child he would become very anxious about being left alone when he felt angry so he learned to “shut down” his feelings of anger. As an adult, he might become aware of a brief twinge of anger at his boss at work. In response he becomes highly anxious and has to go to the bathroom to calm down. He experiences an anxiety-based reaction to his affect.

Ann’s parents teased her when she was a child, telling her she was being a “baby” for crying. Because she was shamed for her natural expression of sadness, she learned to view her feelings of sadness as “weak.” As an adult she prides herself on being “strong and stoic” and dismisses feelings of sadness as “weak and pathetic.” When she experiences the loss of someone close to her she can’t allow herself to grieve because feelings of sadness trigger too much shame. The shame-based reaction causes her to spiral into a depression.

As we can see these anxiety and shame-based reactions inhibit our natural expression of emotions. This inhibition causes various problems in our lives, such as anxiety and depression. It’s quite common for clients to present in therapy with various psychological symptoms, yet as we do some digging we realize they are related to deeply ingrained affect phobias.

Therapy helps to address affect phobias by identifying and modifying blocks to feeling. It is often helpful to understand these anxiety and shame-based reactions as adaptations to the kind of childhood environment you grew up in. It also an adaptation that is often no longer needed and gets in the way of healthier functioning. We can develop healthier functioning by expanding our window of tolerance for the full range of emotions in our lives.

“To live a full and connected life in the face of difficulty and even tragedy requires the capacity to feel and make use of our emotional experience.” Diana Fosha, The Transforming Power of Affect.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.

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Written by Katrina Taylor

Katrina Taylor, LMFTA, is a therapist in private practice in Austin, TX.